In the meals of Jesus, God encompasses the whole of inter-related creation—thus overcoming our “reconciliation deficit disorder.”
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
In our comment on the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, we noted that Jesus sent his disciples out into the villages of Galilee with power over unclean spirits and instructions to receive their hosts' hospitality, so as to create solidarity with them in a relationship that was to become a defining mark of a new community. Their table fellowship, we suggested, would be “unbound” from anxiety about the empire and religious observance, and thus open to a “new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation.” In terrifying contrast to those expectations of table fellowship, the Gospel for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost presents a scene that can be described as truly demonic: host to assembled court nobles, army officers, and leading Galileans, Herod Antipas pridefully rewards his daughter's dancing with a promise to give her whatever she asks for; while her mother directs her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Gordon Lathrop catches the horror of the scene: “A young girl (korasion, 6:22, 28, the same word used for the girl whom Jesus, by contrast, raises to life and a meal of life in 5:41-42) is used as bait to bring about John's death, dancing during the symposion, the part of a Hellenistic banquet which brought women and slaves into the room as an entertainment that was frequently lascivious. John's head is served then, as if it were part of the food” (New Proclamation Year B, 2000, Easter through Pentecost. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 210). Noting that the company is the “inner circle of power” in Galilee, Ched Myers aptly describes the meal as “the occasion for the murderous whims of the ruling class of Galilee to be revealed.” The story is “a parody on the shameless methods of decision-making among the elite, a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face: Herod trades the ‘head’ (symbolizing his honor) of the prophet to rescue the integrity of his own drunken oath” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, 1988, p.216).
Mark has clearly used the account of John's beheading to bring prophetic depth and urgency to his narrative. This is what the reign of death looks like under the political and religious powers in control of the region of Galilee. The choice of Amos 7:7-15 as our complementary first lesson underscores this connection with the prophetic tradition, which a similar pairing last Sunday of the Gospel reading with Ezekiel 2:1-5 gave us reason to explore. The story succeeds powerfully as an example of the prophet's ability to find “fresh and attention-getting ways of imagining Israel into the fissure of death that it chose to deny and disregard,” in Walter Brueggemann’s apt phrase. Anticipated here is the deathly dynamic that will lead to Jesus’ death on the cross. But the contrast with the table fellowship of the disciples and villagers in Galilee might also alert us to the significance of the fulsome comparison that is to come in the unfolding events of the Gospel and, consequently, in the lections for several coming Sundays after Pentecost.
Lathrop sharpens the contrast between the meals within this larger frame of reference in his comments on the Gospel reading for this Sunday:
The narrative of the meal, its awful roles for women and men and its grisly entrée, recall something even more profound to the Christian assembly gathered to hear this book. Jesus, too, holds meals. In fact, one of these immediately follows this narrative (6:30-44). Another is at a little further remove (8:1-10), after a debate about eating together with the unclean (7:1-23) and a narrative about an outsider woman getting even more than crumbs (7:24-30). Two other meals immediately precede Jesus' own death (14:3-9, 17-26). And then, the most important of these meals, the church's Eucharist, is occurring in the very assembly where this book is being read. In all of these meals there are several radical contrasts with Herod's banquet: crowds are welcome and loved (6:34; 8:2); outsiders are welcome (7:2, 28; women are part of the hungry and fed assembly (7:28; 8:9), not just the entertainment or the servers. Indeed, a woman plays a central role at Jesus' meals as well, like the role of the korasion at Herod's banquet, but what she does is anoint Jesus' head (14:3), not maim it or have it maimed, proclaiming forever the meaning of his death in love (14:9). And astonishingly, Jesus also is served as food in the shared bread and the shared cup (13:22-24), but freely, in love, in the risen presence of his living body encountering the community (Lathrop, pp. 108-9).
If Mark has indeed devised a “fresh and attention-getting” way to bring his readers “into the fissure of death” that we mostly “chose to deny and disregard,” he is also preparing us to envision an alternative future that invites “not only Israel but all nations beyond its several fissures.” ( See Brueggemann's description of the prophet's purpose in our comment on the texts for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost).
In an indication of the importance of these themes in the church's teaching, the meals of Jesus will be the focus of the readings for the next five Sundays. That will give us ample occasion to develop the significance of these meals and their contrast with the banquet of Herod for care of creation. But the readings set beside this Sunday's gospel already point to leading themes. The first lesson from Amos reminds us of the prophets’ standing assumption that injustice on the part of the ruling elite brings desolation to the land: “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste” (7:9); the psalmist's lament expresses longing for the restoration of Yahweh's glory to the land, when ”[f]aithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase (85:11-13). Hope for enjoyment of the bounty of the creation at table endures, even as a mere “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” leads us in lament over the degradation of the land by policies and practices of the people and their leaders. And last but not least, Paul's Letter to the Ephesians reminds us it is God's will that “according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10).
Norman Wirzba has neatly woven these themes together for us in sections of his book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, about “Eucharistic Hospitality” and “From Hospitality to Reconciliation.” The heart of the contrast we have been describing between the meal of Herod and the meals of Jesus is identified when Wirzba writes that
As early Christians struggled to remember Jesus in their eating and table fellowship,
they discovered that to co-abide with Jesus called for a new social reality and a new form of life. In this life the forms of oppression and division, degradation and violence that characterize customary eating and living needed to be overcome. They understood Jesus to be building on the prophetic traditions that spoke of a new way of organizing existence, announcing that in him people will discover the good news of healing, freedom, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all prerequisites to the experience of life in its fullness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. P. 165).
The practice of coming together in table fellowship that was established in the very first of the disciple’s missionary initiatives thus proves to be “far more than a fueling event,” in Wirzba's phrase. It is one of those “radical, prophetic act[s] of hospitality that is founded upon God's primordial and sustaining hospitality whereby the whole world is created, nurtured, and given the freedom to be itself.” As such, it can also serve as a place from which “existing economies are analyzed and challenged.”
When people eat together in a Eucharistic way they learn that sharing with and caring for others is not an option. Helped by the evidence of another's comforting presence and nurturing touch, they discover that “Human beings are gifts to each other in an endless economy of God's grace whereby we are given in order to give” (Wirzba, pp. 168-69. The quotation is from Graham Ward, Christ and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, p. 81).
But the economy of grace does not at all embrace only human beings. This is one of those “misguided beliefs,” Wirzba feels, that have resulted in what he calls the “reconciliation deficit disorder” that has been present for much of the church's history. It is important to underscore, he insists, that the scope of God's reconciling work extends beyond humanity to include '”all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” As the Apostle Paul proclaims in a passage from our second lesson, (Ephesians 1:3-10),
“God's plan from before the foundation of the world has been to gather up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ, suggesting that everything God has made has a place in God’s eternal life . . . . Full fellowship with God is not the fellowship of a few disembodied, placeless minds. God's eternal hope is for a new heaven and a new earth that can be the home of God (Rev. 21:1-4). God's eternal desire is not to be freed from but to be with and dwell among a reconciled creation (Wirzba, p. 174).
The science of ecology underscores the unlikelihood of such disembodied reconciliation: “Ecology teaches us that no individual lives alone. To live we must eat, which means we must attend to the bodies and the geo-bio-chemical processes that keep all of us on the move.” In the meals of Jesus, we see that the reconciling work of God in Christ encompasses all of God's inter-related creation (Wirzba, p. 175).